Can’t you make the Bible say whatever you want?

Q. Over the last couple of years of reading different Bible interpretations it seems to me that there are 2 major distinct views. 1. Although Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants have slightly differing opinions, they are basically are the same. 2. The other group, those that consider the Sabbath to be Saturday, that there is no immortal soul thus no eternal Hell, that the whole above Church Hierarchy is actually a fake Christianity + more. Now I have been reading some of your views about how you can reconcile the differences within the #1 group, which I can understand, but how would you reconcile the #2 group when they basically are saying that the larger group you belong to, #1, is Satan’s false Church. Like you they also quote the Bible to back up their claims. I am not a Christian of any group so I find the whole thing very confusing as it seems to me that really you can make the Bible say whatever you want, it is just a matter of interpretation. I look forward to your reply.

Thank you for your question. Yes, you can make the Bible say whatever you want—if you take individual statements out of context and select and arrange them to support your prior commitments. But this is not a responsible way to read or teach the Bible. We would not handle any other book that way, and we shouldn’t accept it when people do it with the Bible.

As I have shown in my books The Beauty Behind the Mask and After Chapters and Verses, unfortunately the division of the Bible into chapters and especially verses, which happened many centuries after it was written, allows and even encourages this disintegrative approach. That is why I have helped to develop editions of the Bible that do not have the chapter and verse numbers in the text.

The proper way to understand and interpret any work of literature (and that is ultimately what the Bible is, a collection of literary works of different types) is to understand first what it was saying to its original audience. That requires an appreciation for the historical context in which the work was written and what issues it was intended to address (circumstances and occasion of composition); what kind of literature it is (literary genre); how it is put together on its own terms (literary structure); and what strong ideas run all the way through it (thematic development).

Interestingly, the large Christian communions that you describe as Group #1 essentially reflect a formation that took place before the Bible was divided into verses. Almost of necessity, their understanding of the Bible and its teaching was grounded in the disciplines I have just described. And I am fascinated and grateful to hear someone who is not a Christian say that they find the three main branches (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) to be “basically the same.” That is certainly what we believe about one another: that we agree on the essentials, and differ only on discretionary matters.

So when it comes to understanding and teaching the Bible, the difference between Group #1 and Group #2 is not a matter of interpretation, but of method. Of course someone who is Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant could also follow the “pick and choose” method, but if they did that, they would likely soon start to have differences with the large, historic tradition to which they belong, and hopefully that tradition would help correct the mistakes that are nearly inevitable with that method. Group #2, I should note, actually got its start within the broad Christian tradition, but when its method led it to have different views, it went off on its own and declared the whole broad tradition wrong, instead of trusting in the consensus that Christian believers have had down through the centuries.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you may have noticed that I have Bible study guides available for free download. They approach the Bible as a collection of literary works, without chapters and verses, in terms of their circumstances of composition, literary genre and structure, and thematic development. Have a look at this page and see if there is a guide you might want to look at. (I’d particularly recommend the one to John for someone who is trying to find out more about the Christian faith.)

Thanks again for your question, and I hope this response has been helpful.


Why do some churches grow and others die?

Q. I have been pondering a question. I will put into a story which is in fact a real situation. There were 2 churches. Both were made up of people who loved our Lord Jesus. They built buildings about the same time right across the street from each other, within the last 20 years. Over time one congregation grew and added more services. I will call that  church A.  

The other congregation, I will call B, lost members as people went to be with the Lord.  Now church B realized that they needed to bring new people into their flock and continued to love the Lord and love people.  They prayed and prayed and decided to hire a new pastor who could help them.  The new pastor loved Jesus and served Him. He tried many many ways to increase the church including community outreach and summer camps for kids and so on, but nothing worked.  

After years of faithfulness and trying church B got down to about 5 families whereas church A continued to grow and their parking was filled to capacity every Sunday. Church B could no longer carry on so they let the pastor go and closed the doors.

Now here is the question I have been troubled by: Why did this happen? I am sure there are many reasons that we could cite  from a human perspective, and I know there are hundreds of books written and seminars given on how to build churches and attract people in this current age. That said, while all of these human efforts and plans that “increase numbers” using business models seem to work, it troubles me that the love and desire for Jesus isn’t enough.

When I read Scripture it tells me that if we ask, it will be given to us. I don’t see anywhere that God says that if you ask and use this business model, better worship band, or higher quantity treats and coffee, then I will give you what you ask by increasing your numbers.

So, bottom line, both congregations had pastors and church members who loved the Lord, prayed, and wanted to share Jesus with others.  Why wasn’t that enough? Again I know there many earthly reasons that we could rationalize, but I am more interested in why God let this happen when apparently all parties put their trust in Him.

I really appreciate your question, because two of the churches I served as a pastor  closed their doors—one while I was there, and the other some years after my pastorate. So as you can imagine, I’ve thought about this a lot over the years. Here are some of my reflections.

An individual congregation is two things at once. It is, on the one hand, a local expression of the universal body of Christ, and as such it has all the resources of faith, prayer, and supernatural power at its disposal. But it is also, on the other hand, an earthly institution, and as such it is subject to all the vicissitudes of life here on earth.

Paul makes an interesting statement in his second letter to the Corinthians: “When I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, I found that the Lord had opened a door for me. But I still had no peace, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia.” Presumably if Paul had stayed on in Troas and ministered, God would have accomplished remarkable things as he preached the gospel with that opening. But relationships still took priority. Paul needed to find Titus not just because he was a valuable ministry partner, but also to learn how things were going in their efforts to pursue reconciliation with the community of believers in Corinth.

We live in two worlds at once. Jesus himself warned us not to neglect the responsibilities of our relationships in this present age under the guise of promoting spiritual activity. If you have money that is needed to support your elderly parents, he admonished, don’t give it to the temple.

A woman joined one of the churches I served as pastor after moving to town to help her parents. She contributed a great deal to our ministry. But that also meant that her contributions were lost to the church she had attended in her previous city. We ourselves lost a member to another church in town when he started dating a woman who attended there. Eventually they got married and to this day they have an effective ministry partnership, much greater than either could have alone. But that came at the price of our church losing a valuable member. This kind of thing is inevitable as the church operates in our world of change and uncertainty. At one point we even had a wave of relocations as several young families had to move to find other work. This practically wiped out our Sunday school, through no fault of our own.

Beyond inevitable and unavoidable occurrences such as these, there are things that a church needs to do “right” if it wants to flourish. You can’t go out and make a lot of mistakes and then wonder why God hasn’t answered your prayers. For example, a church needs to “speak the language” of the people it wants to reach. Paul wrote to the Corinthians in his first letter, “There are  many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning. But if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.” Don’t start an English-language service in a place where nobody speaks English if you expect anybody to come.

But this applies not just literally, but also figuratively in the sense of culture. You also have to make sure that the style, the music, the decor, and yes even the refreshments are welcoming and inviting to the people you want to reach. These aren’t a magic formula for church growth; I’ll take prayer over brand-name coffee any day. But it is nevertheless a biblical principle that we need to “speak a language” that will make the people we want to reach feel at home if we want them to make our church their home.

All of this said—and I think most people already recognize these things—the fact remains that local churches, as earthly institutions, are “mortal.” They have a life cycle. They are born, grow, and die. The average lifespan of a church is 125 years. Churches are started by people in their 20s and 30s who, by the time they reach their 40s and 50s, have gotten things just the way they want them. They don’t appreciate other people in their 20s and 30s coming in and telling them they should be doing things differently. So those younger people go elsewhere (they may start churches of their own), and the founders continue along until the church is ultimately closed down by their children in their elderly years. There are exceptions; some churches have had vibrant and faithful ministries for centuries. But if you study those churches, you discover that over and over again, somebody has effectively planted a new church right in the midst of the old one.

One rule for ministry within churches is, “New programs for new people.” Don’t try to plug a newcomer into a Bible study whose members have been together for fifteen years. Rather, start a new Bible study for them and several other newcomers. Analogously, people who look at the big picture are telling us we need “new churches for new people.” It has been estimated that the United States needs 350,000 new churches to reach all the people who would be interested but who wouldn’t feel that they fit in existing churches.

And even with that said, we need to acknowledge that 80% of new church plants don’t survive more than five years. (The average lifespan of a church is actually 125 years only if it makes it through the first five!) Even if the pastors and people who start these churches are being sincerely obedient to the leading of the Lord, those are the facts on the ground. So if you’ve been in that 80% (as I have), don’t feel that you’ve failed. You’ve been faithful. Because even if the local church doesn’t survive, its ministry endures.

A friend of mine was part of a new church plant. He just loved it. The experience of being part of it was very meaningful to him and he talks about it to this day. Nevertheless, when the people of this church ultimately faced the fact that they just couldn’t sustain operations, he was one of the members who voted to close it down. (Everyone else voted the same way, except the pastor. I totally understand that.) But my friend still talks about the quality of life and relationships in this church as a model he aspires to continue. He also talks about the sermons and all he learned from them. The ministry endures.

Relationships endure as well. The church I served whose Sunday school got wiped out eventually closed its doors some years after I was there. But many of the women who were members, even though they now attend a number of different churches all over town, still get together at regular intervals for fellowship. They formed a community that survives even though the church has ceased operations.

So this is the paradox of the local church. It is an earthly institution that is animated by the spiritual life of its identity as an expression of the universal body of Christ. These two dynamics are in constant interplay. Paul wrote to the Romans, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who lives in you.” I think we see that in the local church when things are at their best: The Spirit of Christ is giving life to the mortal institution.

Prayer is a necessary condition for this to happen, but it is not a sufficient condition. Rather, as the Bible also teaches us, “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.” In the end, on this earth, even when people of sincere faith and good will pray and obey and take due care to “speak the language,” a church may die rather than grow simply because time and chance happen to it. But as I have said, the ministry will endure, the fellowship will endure, and all who gave their efforts will hear as they stand before their Lord, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Is it right to eat meat?

Q. I recently saw some videos of livestock being slaughtered for food, which left me feeling very upset, especially seeing how animals, like pigs, helplessly tremble with fear, crying desperately on their march to death. The videos were shared by people who are trying to make a point for why we should just eat vegetables or be vegans. As an animal lover, a dog owner and as someone who eats meat, I am feeling confused and guilty. I would like to know why God allows humans to consume animals. Or is it right to do so? As Christians, how should we view this issue?

Thank you for your heartfelt question, In light of it, it’s interesting to note that according to Genesis, humans were originally given “every green plant for food.” It was only after the flood that God said to Noah, “Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.” It’s also interesting to note how the Bible says that in the future, animals will not be carnivorous any more:

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.

Finally, we may also observe that humans are able to get all the nutrients they need, including proteins, by eating just plant-based foods.

And so it seems that, according to the Bible, people originally ate just plants, but for some reason (interpreters have different theories about why; the Bible doesn’t say specifically) people were also given animals as food after the flood. But things will change back to plant-based foods at some time in the future.

So I would say that if you wanted to abstain from eating meat as a matter of personal and Christian religious conviction, you would have a biblical basis to do that. Whatever you decided about that issue, you could certainly also advocate for the most humane treatment possible of animals that are used for food. Thank you again for your concern and compassion.


Why did Jesus have to die in such a torturous manner?

Q. One month before my 90-year-old aunt passed away, she asked me a question, “Why did Jesus have to die in such a torturous manner? The harshest way to die during his time was crucifixion. This has bothered me since I was a young girl.” I have the same question myself. Please share your thoughts, thank you.

I can understand your aunt’s concern and yours. Crucifixion was not just the harshest way to die during the time of Jesus; it was one of the cruelest and most protracted and painful forms of execution ever invented. It was first introduced by the Persians and then developed in other cultures. The Romans had turned it into a process that could involve days of unspeakable suffering before death finally came.

I don’t feel that I can answer your question in terms of purpose, that is, why God would have wanted Jesus to die that way. I can’t imagine that this was something that God wanted, intended, or made happen, even though God did send Jesus into the world at a time when crucifixion was practiced, knowing that he would be “delivered into the hands of men.” From such questions I think we can only step back in mystery.

But I believe there is an answer to your question in terms of result. After Jesus had suffered some of the worst things human beings have ever conceived of doing to one another, he still said, “Father, forgive them.” Such a statement would certainly have been meaningful if he had said it just before being executed in a way that, while nevertheless horrible, did not involve protracted torture, such as by a firing squad. But it is deeply meaningful in the context of crucifixion. There can be no doubt about the love of God that came to earth in Christ Jesus if, after suffering on the cross to the point of death, Jesus still forgave and asked the Father to forgive. So while we may always wonder why Jesus had to die that way, we can worship and adore him as the Savior who endured such things and still never ceased to love the people of this world who had done those things to him.

Meditating on the sufferings of Jesus is a time-honored spiritual practice. Reflecting on all that he suffered for us, and the love that this demonstrated, increases our devotion to him and helps us forsake the sins for which he died. It ultimately enables us to rejoice, even as we empathize tearfully with his sufferings, at the greatness of our salvation and of our Savior.

The great hymn writers give us exemplary models of this practice. An unknown German writer offered us this reflection, which has been translated into English as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”:

What thou, my Lord, has suffered was all for sinners’ gain;
mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ‘Tis I deserve thy place;
look on me with thy favor, vouchsafe to me thy grace.

Another hymn by an unknown writer, translated into English as “The Strife is O’er, the Battle Done,” shares a similar reflection:

The powers of death have done their worst,
but Christ their legions has dispersed.
Let shouts of holy joy outburst.

I believe your aunt was meditating on the sufferings of Jesus in the last days of her life. While she may not have gotten an answer to her specific question, it seems she certainly got a deeper and deeper appreciation for all that Jesus had done for her on the cross. And not long after she shared her question with you, she met him face to face, risen from the dead and alive forever, and she saw in his eyes the same love for her that he had demonstrated in his death on earth.

Are we not supposed to call anyone pastor, teacher or father?

Q. Does the Bible say we shouldn’t call anyone pastor, teacher or father? I heard a man on YouTube state this but he gave no scriptures to reference. Thanks in advance.

The passage this man was likely referring to is Matthew 23:1-11:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

I think this a situation, however, where it is not so much the thing in itself that must be avoided, but the misuse of that thing. We can see that by analogy to the other things Jesus mentions. We wouldn’t say, for example, that there should never be places of honor at banquets, such as a “head table” for the bridal party at a wedding. Rather, people shouldn’t desire to have the best places as a matter of worldly prestige; instead, we should cultivate the mature spiritual quality of humility. That’s what Jesus was getting at.

Similarly, I think there is a valid place for titles of honor in many contexts. It’s respectful, for example, for a college student to address the person who’s teaching their class as “professor” when asking a question. It’s certainly respectful for children to address their parents as “mother” and “father” (or Mom and Dad, or something similar) rather than calling them by their first names.

So the point is actually not to desire “status symbols” that confer social prestige. Rather, we should be humble and seek our praise from God alone, through loyal obedience, not from other people. I hope this helps answer your question.



Esther in the Word for Word Bible Comic: Another tour-de-force

Esther, the next volume in the Word for Word Bible Comic series of graphic-novel presentations of biblical books, is now available. I find it another tour-de-force by the artist, Simon Amadeus Pillario. It’s particularly impressive that he has researched and portrayed a third cultural and historical context, that of the Persian Empire, after the land of Canaan in the settlement period for the Joshua, Judges, and Ruth volumes and the first-century Mediterranean world for Mark. All the sumptuousness of the Persian court, where the story of Esther takes place, comes through in the detailed and historically accurate artwork.

The cultural and technological achievements of the Persians are also depicted, for example, the way the emperor could communicate rapidly and effectively in multiple languages throughout his far-flung territories.

Even though I’m a lifelong student and teacher of the Bible, seeing another volume of the Word for Word Bible Comic, as always, has given me insights into the biblical story that I never had before. For example, because Mordecai won’t grovel before him, Haman wants to have him hanged on a gallows “fifty cubits high.” We read this and don’t think much of it, as we may not know how to translate the ancient measurement into modern terms. But in the panel that shows Haman being hanged on his own gallows, the comic illustrates that this actually works out to seventy-five feet high! (A small-scale replica here would not do this justice; the image takes up an entire page, and it stops you in your tracks. You need to see it for yourself in the comic.) Haman not only wanted to kill Mordecai, he wanted to make an example of him for all to see, far and wide. He was a terrorist in the true sense of the word—he wanted to create terror that would keep anyone from opposing him.

But beyond these realistic and informative touches, the real genius of this latest volume is its characterizations of Esther, Ahasuerus, Mordecai, and Haman. The story revolves around those four figures; it moves back and forth between scenes with each one  at the center. While the comic is faithful to the biblical narrative, reproducing every word, it tells much of the story just through their facial expressions—and they are eloquent. Here, for example, Ahasuerus is contemplating whether to spare Esther’s life after she steps uninvited into his throne room.

Through such portrayals, readers of the comic are drawn immediately and irresistibly into the intrigue between Esther, Ahasuerus, Mordecai, and Haman, and thus right into the fast-paced story itself. But as it should be, Esther herself is at the center of the book and the story. Her portrayal, in which she develops from a little girl in pigtails to a stunning natural beauty who is also a woman of strength, courage, and character, is the highlight of the comic. You’ll have to get the book yourself to see this entire development unfold. But here’s a preview of how it begins:

You can order Esther in the Word for Word Bible Comic series at this link.

And, as a special bonus this time around, you can download and preview the first chapter at this link.

I was going to say, as I have for all the previous volumes, that I highly recommend this book. But I think if you download the preview, I won’t need to say another word. You’ll see for yourself!

Disclosure: I am an unpaid biblical-theological consultant to this project. (It’s a great privilege!)


How can I have a soft heart, not a hardened one?

Q. I want to be a Christian, but I hardened my heart and then God hardened it. I don’t want a heard heart, I don’t want God to harden my heart. How can I get my heart softened by God? I want to be safe and not frightened and scared.

I have good news for you. If you are grieved by the way you’ve hardened your heart in the past, then that in itself means that your heart is actually soft once again now. When you say that God hardened your heart, I take that to mean that you gave God no option other than to leave you in the hardness of your heart—until that brought you to the place where you are now, grieved by your resistance to Him and wanting to come back. So I see no reason why God would continue to harden your heart, either, now that this purpose has been accomplished.

I would say go to God in the softness of your heart and say to Him everything that you’ve just said here: You want to be a Christian, you don’t want to have a hard heart, you want God to soften your heart, and you want to be safe (saved) and unafraid. You can pray to God in those terms and be confident of Jesus’ promise, “I will never turn away anyone who comes to Me.”

I encourage you to approach Christian friends or relatives, or a nearby church, and share your past struggles and future hopes. I trust you will find a warm welcome in to the community of those who are following Jesus and walking with God. May God be with you and bless you.